By Allen Lessels
Eric Blake of Connecticut and Laura Haefeli of Colorado will have their hands full trying to defend their championships when the gun sounds for the 2014 Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race on Saturday, June 21.
Blake and Haefeli prevailed by relatively wide margins in last year's challenging 7.6-mile test up the Mt. Washington Auto Road to the highest peak in the northeastern United States.
Whether they can do it again remains to be seen. This much is certain: a talented crop of challengers, including former champions, a top-flight Italian runner on both the men's and women's side and newcomers to the mountain will be doing their best to wrest the titles away in the 54th running of the event.
Two of Italy's best mountain runners, Valentina Belotti and Emanuele Manzi, are recent additions to an already impressive field of competitors. Manzi is a protégé of Italian mountain running legend Marco de Gasperi and has raced on six of his country's World Championship teams.
Belotti won the women's World Mountain Running Association championship in Italy in September of 2009 and was the runnerup in the race in 2010 and 2012.
Morgan Arritola of Ketchum, Idaho, who finished third behind Belotti at the World Championships in 2012, will race in the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race for the first time, too. A world class Nordic skier before she turned to mountain running, Arritola finished 34th in the Nordic 10k freestyle competition at the Vancouver Olympics in 2010.
Manzi and other newcomers such as Ryan Bak of Bend, Ore., who has run a 2:14:17 marathon, and Andrew Benford of Austin, Tex., a steeplechase standout who was the top U.S finisher in the World Mountain Running Championships in 2009, will try to break into the three-man pack that has paced the Mount Washington race the last two years.
Blake won his third Mt. Washington last year – to go with triumphs in 2006 and 2008 – in his best time ever of 59 minutes, 57 seconds. Joseph Gray of Colorado Springs was second in 1:02:46 and Sage Canaday of Boulder, Co., was next in 1:03:39.
The cross country and track and field coach at Central Connecticut State University in New Britain, Blake caught Gray, the early leader, before the halfway point of the race.
"I ran the second half of the race pretty much alone and felt pretty good," Blake said. "It was great knowing in the last mile that it looked like you were going to win the race. In the last stretch, at 'The Wall,' I realized I had a good chance to go under an hour and I was pushing that section as hard as I could."
He made it with just a couple of seconds to spare.
Canaday won the 2012 Mount Washington Road race in 58:27 and was followed by Gray in 1:00:33 and Blake in 1:00:54.
Canaday and Gray are both due back for this year's race.
"Joe and Sage will be ready to go," Blake said. "You can count on the returners in the field to do well. I haven't seen the list of newcomers yet. Sometimes they pan out and sometimes it's tough for them. But you can't get too caught up in who's in the field."
Gray is looking for his first Mount Washington win and could be posed to grab one. He won the USA Track & Field cross country championships in December and has finished in the top 16 at the World Mountain Running Championship each of the last six years.
Haefeli, who lives in Del Norte, Colo., won her first Mount Washington last year in a time of 1:18:05, more than five minutes in front of Brandy Erholtz of Evergreen, Colo., the winner in 2008 and 2009. Regina Loiacano of Gloucester, Mass., finished third. Erholtz and Loiacano are in the women's field again.
Haefeli, who coaches the running teams at Del Norte High School and works in the family's Haefeli Honey Farm business, nearly declined her invitation to come to the race last year because she had not been able to do enough training.
She was glad she came.
"I remember reaching the top and it was really windy and I tried jumping in behind some guys to break the wind," Haefeli said. "Holy Toledo it was windy. It was awesome to break that tape."
Haefeli said she has had less time to train this year, but she's looking forward to coming back.
"It's always been fun and it's a great race," she said. "It's a great group of women and it's always a competitive field and to be able to go win it once was awesome. It's a hard race, you're just working the whole way."
The premier mountain-running event in the eastern U.S., the Northeast Delta Dental Mt. Washington Road Race attracts top American and international mountain runners along with seasoned marathoners, track and cross-country runners, Nordic skiers, snowshoe racers, triathletes and others. Since the number of serious athletes wanting to run this race is much greater than the 153-year-old Mt. Washington Auto Road can accommodate, the "Run to the Clouds" is filled each year partly by invitations issued to elite mountain runners but primarily by a computer-generated random selection process open to all comers. This year the registration window for this lottery opened on February 17 and closed on Saturday, March 15.
The Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race begins at the Auto Road base on Route 16 north of Pinkham Notch and climbs to the 6288-foot summit at an average grade of 12 percent and a net altitude gain of 4650 feet. The runners battle not only each other but the sheer force of gravity and Mt. Washington's famously severe winds.
Former six-time World Mountain Champion Jonathan Wyatt of New Zealand holds the men's course record at Mt. Washington: 56 minutes 41 seconds, set in 2004. The women's record was set in 2010 by the 23-year-old Ethiopian runner Shewarge Amare, who made the ascent in one hour eight minutes 21 seconds.
Based in Concord, NH, Northeast Delta Dental has sponsored the race up the historic Mt. Washington Auto Road since 2001. The health company's CEO, Tom Raffio, has run the race in a personal best of one hour 50 minutes and 51 seconds. In 2012, Northeast Delta Dental increased its already strong support for the event, making it officially the Northeast Delta Dental Mount Washington Road Race.
Fifty percent of all proceeds from the race will be donated to the Coos County Family
Health Services for their oral health programs. Based in nearby Berlin, NH, this community-based organization provides innovative, personalized, comprehensive health care and social services to everyone, regardless of economic status.